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Debtors Prisons in Ferguson, Missouri




Civil rights lawyers have filed a lawsuit alleging that Ferguson imprisoned Americans when they were unable to pay fines for traffic tickets and other minor offenses. The complaint did not deny the town’s right to impose fines, but challenged their unrestricted jailing of people who were legitimately unable to pay the fines. Ferguson, a city with a population of  only 21,000, issued in 2013 almost 33,000 arrest warrants for unpaid traffic violations and other minor charges. Many of the charged lived outside Ferguson.

Ferguson jailed offenders for traffic fines and other minor charges even when it was obvious that the defendants were unemployed and had no assets.The complaint asserted that Ferguson had violated the Constitution because the city courts imprisoned defendants without valid consideration as to whether  the defendants had any ability to pay the fines and other court charges. The lawsuit also alleged that the courts in Ferguson did not provide other alternatives such as community service in lieu of fines or reasonable payment plans.

Unfortunately, this bias against the poor exists in all of our states. In 2014, an investigation by NPR revealed that all fifty states were sending people to jail for unreasonable fines and court costs even when some of the defendants did not have the ability to pay. In 2014, Human Rights Watch issued a report that many tenants in Arkansas faced criminal charges each year for not paying their rent or for not vacating the rental property in time. Tenants were arrested at home and work for not paying their rent. One judge called a woman defendant charged with not paying her rent a “bank robber”.

Debtors prisons were banned in the United States before the Civil War in 1861. Ferguson and Arkansas laws and policies have contributed to the United States having 25% of the world’s inmates despite having only 5% of the world’s population.

By: Bradley Schwartz
Founder of



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